#GamerGate: The Microcosm of the Culture Wars
As a games writer by trade, it’s been funny watching mainstream news sites pick up the story known simply as “GamerGate”. Everyone from Reason to The New York Times has picked up on the story, with some doing a better job of reporting a two month old story than others. Naturally, the articles have a slant of their own for the most part that goes along that site’s political lines, and the signal-to-noise ratio at this point has gotten so poor that it’s hard to even remember what caused all of this in the first place.
When looking at GamerGate, it’s important to remember a couple of points:
1) Ultimately, it’s really not about video games, it’s about culture. GamerGate is a microcosm of the culture wars.
2) Everyone is missing key free-market solutions to all of the issues brought up.
I will preface, in the interests of full disclosure, a few things about myself in this that people will want to bear in mind as they read everything below the cut. First, I have been, on my video game Twitter feed (@gamingbus), 100% anti GamerGate. Also, as previously mentioned, I spent a while writing about video games, centred around the industry itself, for a living, a perspective I believe few other political sites have, so a lot of the smoke regarding issues with women – particularly opinionated ones on both sides of this issue – has a fire that I’ve personally witnessed. With that in mind, I will do my utmost to keep this one down the middle.
A CLIFF NOTES HISTORY OF GAMERGATE
Though issues regarding some of the people involved have been going on for years, GamerGate started to ferment when a man by the name of Eron Gjoni posted what can only be described as a jilted lover’s manifesto relating to game developer Zoe Quinn, indicating that she had cheated on him with Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson. Quinn hasn’t been popular with gamers for a long time, and the reaction to her game “Depression Quest” – a text based Choose Your Own Adventure style game which is free but accepted donations – was hostile to say the least, so a group of people – largely based around anarchist webforum 4chan and various IRC channels – that already didn’t like someone they perceived to be a “social justice warrior” went in guns hot. They “doxxed” her – posted her personal information online with the unstated objective to do something with that info – and the resulting abuse she received – including multiple, detailed threats to rape and murder her – forced her to flee her home.
Around the time this was happening, Canadian-American feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian came out with the latest video in her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, continuing an examination of how females are used as background decoration, or outright trophies, in many video games:
Like Quinn, Sarkeesian has long been a target to the 4chan demographic. When she conceptualized her Tropes vs. Women series, she started a Kickstarter to help fund it, asking for $6,000. She hit her funding goal within 24 hours, but the backlash was strong, particularly from Men’s Rights Activists, culminating in a flash game where the only action and goal was to beat her up, causing increased facial damage. This caused a Streisand Effect; donations blew up, ending up with over $158,000 donated to the cause. Still, people have been attacking every video of her’s since – the first one was taken down for awhile by a combination of abuse of YouTube’s report system and the DMCA – and the timing of her last one coinciding with the attacks on Zoe caused a backdraft. Anita, too, was eventually driven to flee her home due to threats.
Sensing the backlash that was coming, a coordinated effort was made on 4chan and IRC channels to make sure to publicly state that the issue, despite two people being driven from their homes, wasn’t about hatred of women, but was instead about distrust of games journalism and their close relationship with developers. They pointed to Nathan Grayson sleeping with Zoe Quinn, implying that she slept to get a good write-up for her game1. They stated that coverage of Anita Sarkeesian’s game was driven by a left wing desire to be artsy and “legitimate”, while disenfranchising “real” gamers. They circulated lists of “SJW journalists” in the industry, all of whom had conveniently condemned attacks against Zoe and Anita. Right around this time, Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra wrote a piece that proclaimed that gamers – the hardcore, “Call of Duty” playing, Mountain Dew drinking diehards – were “over“, being made irrelevant more and more by a more casual audience playing games on their cell phones.
Leigh’s piece is right around when the shit hit the fan. Ever since actor Adam Baldwin coined the term on Twitter – in a tweet highlighting a video that made accusations regarding Quinn’s sex life – the issue has blown up in so many ways that I could chronicle ten examples of issues – another developer (Brianna Wu, of Spacekat) being forced to flee her home, Intel being pressured to remove advertising from Gamasutra – and miss ten more. Both sides have co-opted the worst traits of their enemies, with the social justice side starting to send their own death threats, and the pro GG side hiding behind disabled members as shields. Partisan outsiders have picked up the story and brought it along their own lines, from MSNBC to Breitbart. There are thousands of tweets a day, most of them arguing or yelling, and very little of actual consequence is being accomplished.
If this is starting to sound like your average electoral tire fire, that’s an accurate description of what the past two months have been like.
ACTUAL VS. PERCEIVED “BIAS” IN JOURNALISM
This is where I put on my games journalist hat, and say that… well, yes. There are a lot of legitimate concerns regarding games journalism. In fact, I cut my teeth calling a lot of them out myself, years ago. I’ve written numerous articles detailing consumer issues, issues relating to journalistic integrity and the overreach of publishers over writers, and the behaviour of the industry’s largest, most mainstream sites2. I know all about “corruption” within the industry, which affects actual journalists and developers a lot less than it does the people who give them orders. Just like mainstream media, there is a financial impetus to keep the status quo, and those responsible for keeping it have been spared the wrath of the protests.
The point is that none of GamerGate’s complaints are new, they’re just being given a megaphone now. However, GamerGate’s complaints – which are growing larger as the movement grows, the noise increases and the original message becomes obfuscated – often don’t make sense, and sometimes are the opposite of proper journalistic practices. For example, the game Bayonetta 2 was released this past Tuesday for the Nintendo Wii U. It has a score of 91 on Metacritic, which is extraordinary. Among the big sites that reviewed the game, one score stands out: the 7.5 given by Polygon, whose reviewer cited that they were uncomfortable with the blatant sexualization of just about every corner of the game. There is now a campaign for Nintendo to remove all access to assets from Polygon because their score was the lowest. First, journalists were called corrupt because they did “collaborate” via GamesJournosPros, now they’re corrupt because they didn’t? It makes no sense.
The main complaint from those against GamerGate is that they believe that the whole movement is a false flag of sorts, meant to cover the tracks of the real movement, which is to silence women in the industry – either in development or journalism – who step out of line. There is strong evidence that there is a degree of truth to this. There’s also the issue that the movement was kicked off of 4chan because 4chan was being used to coordinate attacks, mainly doxxing attacks. Whatever your thoughts on journalism, or the women who were primarily involved, this is never acceptable, and though some people have gone out to denounce those who have attacked the women in question, it’s been a minority; in most cases, the plight of affected women is simply never considered.
The most important thing to remember is that most games journalists – myself included – are not trained journalists, they’re just people who love video games that just happen to love games. One of the greatest sports writers around today is Robert Lipsyte, who is currently serving as the Ombudsman for ESPN. What’s notable about Lipsyte is that he could not care less for the leagues and events he covered. To him, fans were just marks and suckers. He was able to detach himself from the mystique of the sport to cover it effectively. However, that doesn’t work for video games. Just about any gamer is instantly skeptical of someone talking about the medium who doesn’t play games themselves3; a Robert Lipsyte would never be taken seriously. Most games journalists are alpha gamers. Kings of the marks. Due to this, many of the issues seen are self-induced errors; not out of corruption, but simple naiveté.
WHY SHOULD NON-GAMERS CARE ABOUT THIS?
It’s very easy for someone who doesn’t follow video games to pass this off as a non-issue. As far as demographics go, the GamerGate protesters are a small, vocal minority within a minority, and the true troublemakers a minority inside that. Some of the inside baseball comes off to non-gamers – by “gamers”, I’m defining those that play video games, not just those inside the GamerGate community – as the same as a sports fan explaining why some cheating scandal is indicative of great societal decay. However, a look into this indicates that this is effectively a control group for the larger-scale culture wars.
The involvement of a lot of players with partisan political bents – starting with Adam Baldwin, a prominent right-wing figure in Hollywood – wasn’t brought on by a love of video games; in fact, many of the outlets reporting on this issue have been calling for certain types of games to be banned, depending on where the political winds blew, and have had commentators who lamented the Brown v. EMA decision. It’s not about integrity, it’s not about the women who were evicted from their house by threats, and it’s certainly not about video games; it’s about how everyone else can shift the narrative to benefit themselves. Most of that has happened on the right wing, where the chance to attack feminism and perceived “social justice warriors” was too much for people to reject. Naturally, the left has made this about the larger issue of women in tech, an issue that has always been more perilous for some than others. Anyone with an opinion – on either side, including the #NotYourShield types who reject being used in the larger debate about feminism – gets torn apart, more viscerally than the men. I’ve been at the centre of many storms, and have received death and bomb threats in the past, but never nearly as bad as many of the women I know in the industry. It’s easy to laugh at feminists who believe that sex is rape, but there’s a very real fire that’s causing the smoke.
The closest parallel I can draw to GamerGate for a political audience is the Tea Party. Both were started by extremists – in the latter’s case, people dressing like Thomas Jefferson to go and scream at Town Hall meetings and really hate Barack Obama – which morphed into something else altogether as people joined to air their own grievances. From a personal standpoint, I hated the Tea Party when it came along, because I felt that legitimate concerns and focus on government spending and the economy were a smokescreen for a campaign to get into office and immediately start putting in Christian-focused social laws – including limiting access to abortion – while largely being ineffective on their stated goals. I feel I’ve been proven right on that front, and since the 2010 midterms, the Tea Party has been a drag for candidates in more moderate states where Republicans aren’t guaranteed to win just for having an “R” next to their name. The movement has also outgrown its roots, with major fundraisers being unable to keep from doing the things it campaigns against in the first place. It’s highly possible that GamerGate goes into the same territory; no matter how many GamerGate members – a loose term as it is, considering the whole point of GamerGate is that it has no leader and is a collection of varied people – denounce threats of violence, the spectre of it is tied around the movement like an anchor, and eventually that weight will become too much to bear. GamerGate has made the front cover of The New York Times and Rolling Stone, both of whom denounced it in their own way; Breitbart and Cinemablend can’t compete with that.
In the end, the same people who control the fate of the Tea Party will control the fate of GamerGate: the proletariat. In the former’s case, the voters do, and while 2010 was a success, it has proven short-term, as voters started to see the group more negatively. Consumers – those who both buy games and consume media – will do the same to the movement either way. The solution to this issue is a free market one, and the success of more intellectual properties such as Gone Home, Portal and Minecraft, while not quite reaching “Call of Duty” status yet, show that the market is starting to shift. Ultimately, for a subject that has become so focuses on leftist feminists and right-wing conservatives attacking each other, the real battle will be won quietly, in hit counts and sales made. Through all the white noise, it’s the market that will ultimately decide the winner.
1 – Nathan Grayson never covered Depression Quest. Never wrote about it once. He did cover her issues relating to The Fine Young Capitalists.
2 – As of this writing, IGN, GameSpot and Game Informer – arguably the three largest sites in the industry – have mentioned GamerGate in an actual article not submitted by a reader once among them (GameSpot covered the Intel story). For non-game savvy readers, it’s all of the “lamestream” media complaints about unwillingness to take on established power, embroiled in one point.
3 – It should be noted that most of the pro-GamerGate commentators – Adam Baldwin, Christina Hoff Sommers, Cathy Young of Reason – don’t play.